Saturday, January 21, 2012

Writing help - Show vs. Tell

I spend a lot of time visiting forums and websites, helping aspiring authors make their book the best it can be—getting it ready for publication one day. One of the things I get told a lot is that writers are getting rejections that say something like, “I really wanted to love this book, but there was too much telling,” or “Show me your character. I just couldn’t get invested in him/her.”

Huh? What in the world does that mean?

One of the better discussions I’ve seen on this lately was in a blog entry written by fellow Tor author Carrie Vaughn. In it, she discussed how to take a scene that was mostly “tell” and turn it into a “show.”

In part two of the blog, she explained how in some cases, “showing” needn’t necessarily increase the size of a scene (which is an argument I often hear against showing.) They’re definitely worth a read.

What I want to discuss here isn’t so much HOW to change a telling scene to a showing one (because Carrie’s blog does such a good job at that), but why it impacts the writing so much. What is it about showing that is so critical to agents and editors? Why does telling make the person judging the book (again, an agent or editor) step away and say, “Nope. The problems are more than I can fix. I must reject it.”?

When you write a book, you’re breathing life into a paper construct. One of the most critical things about creating a character is making the reader BELIEVE that before the book opened, that person was alive. They had parents, a childhood, pets, friends, did chores, went through the pain of school, and the joy of love (this is true even of a child character.) Even a tragic character had some joy. Even the happiest optimist experienced some pain.

If you give your character a pet, there’s a story behind it. They picked that pet for a reason. They feed it, care for it, bend their life to fit around that living being. There are emotions tied to the ownership of the pet. So to give that paper character a being to care for imbues it with the emotions that go with the interaction.

Telling robs the emotion from the character. If you say, “Bob walked the dog before he raced off into the night.” you've told the reader nothing. The reader simply shrugs and says, "Okay. Why bother to even mention the dog if there’s no joy or fear in the interaction." Dogs are smart. He’s going to know something’s wrong with Bob. He’s going to sense fear or happiness or a thousand other emotions . . . and react to it. A one line throw-away doesn’t do Bob or his dog (or the plot) any justice.

A few moments, a simple paragraph, is all it takes for the reader to BELIEVE that Bob loves his dog (or hates it, or is indifferent to it). How he treats his dog will be how your reader reacts to Bob. Does he put aside his pain so his dog has fun on the walk? Is he impatient that the dog finish his business outside? You can paint a few simple lines between Bob and his dog and turn a “tell” into a brilliant, throat-catching “show” that will leave the readers believing nearly everything Bob later does.

So, if you’ve been told there’s too much “tell” going on in your book, you need to look to the throwaway lines. Look for those things that you’ve given to your character to make them flesh and bone and see where no flesh was ever added.

Bare bones won’t sell a book. Only flesh and blood will get under the readers’ skin and make the character come alive.

Take a second to comment and tell me YOUR show vs. tell story. Is there a point where someone pointed out the tell or do you struggle every day with trying to figure out where you’ve gone wrong? Let’s get some dialogue going and see if we can help everyone out there discover the difference in their own WIP.

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